Marching alongside thousands of masked protesters, I couldn’t help but note the irony in that the goal of this protest was to unmask racism.
We mark the civil-rights movement as an inflection point in the war against racial injustice—and rightfully so. But the past few weeks have again reminded us racism hasn’t been conquered, but has instead retreated into the shadows of our collective consciousness, waging a perpetual guerrilla war against justice and equality. Its venom is as toxic and insidious as ever before, now firmly embedded in far subtler forms.
We’ve learned in the past few months that COVID-19 is such a formidable threat precisely because it so efficiently spread through asymptomatic hosts. Similarly, racism, under the cover of plausible deniability, makes it that much more difficult to definitively identify and eradicate. What does it take for any person to admit that he’s a racist, when he compares himself to the obvious culprits from the antebellum South or Jim Crow America? How many people today will honestly see themselves as perpetrators of racial injustice?
Racism, like COVID-19, must be identified and diagnosed before it can be treated and traced. An unmasking must take place. And it’s easy and convenient to diagnose it in unjust systems external to ourselves. It’s much more painful to pinpoint it in one’s own heart. But racism will never be rooted out and dealt with on a systemic level until it is first confessed and lamented on a personal level. It has to begin with me.
And that’s exactly why this past week has been so personally jarring. God has been unmasking me, revealing to me a lifetime of deep-seated sin and resentment I never knew was there.
God has been unmasking me, revealing to me a lifetime of deep-seated sin and resentment I never knew or admitted was there.
The rallying cry of the current movement is “Black Lives Matter!” It’s evident from recent and not-so-recent events that black lives often don’t matter on a national or societal stratum—but do black lives really matter to me? From a theoretical or theological perspective, of course they do. I know all mankind is created in God’s image and has inherent value, dignity, and worth. But if I’m honest, I didn’t understand the cry of Black Lives Matter until now.
Let me share a few episodes in my life to show you why.
Under the Mask
My early childhood years were spent as one of the only Asian kids in a predominantly brown community. My neighbors were Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Dominicans, many of whom were dark-skinned. Everywhere I went I would hear, “Chino!” As a 4-year-old I thought “chino” was Spanish for “Gene.” I asked my mom how everyone knew my name. She said they were just teasing me, and that was one of my earliest memories of shame and anger. Things were compounded in the next few years when I began to be bullied. When my bike got stolen, Mom told me I should never play with Hispanic or black kids again. We promptly moved to a town that was 40 percent Korean.
I vividly remember watching the news with my parents as an 11-year-old as riots raged in Los Angeles. My parents had close friends in Koreatown whose businesses were targeted and looted. I couldn’t understand why. I asked my dad why the rioters were attacking Korean businesses when they were upset about the white officers who beat Rodney King. His answer was, “Because they’re bad people.” We watched on the news as Korean store owners armed themselves to defend their businesses. My parents owned a women’s clothing store at Columbus Circle, so my next question to my dad was, “If they start rioting in New York, will you get a gun and shoot them?” He answered without hesitation, “Of course.” That terrified me. I desperately prayed to God that night to protect my parents from the bad black people.
In high school and college I dove head-first into black culture. My friends and I mourned the deaths of Tupac and Biggie; we idolized Wu Tang and Gang Starr. We sagged our Karl Kani jeans and rocked Timberlands. I waited four hours in line outside of the Virgin Megastore in Union Square to meet Ghostface Killah and get his new album signed. When it was my turn to meet him, he rolled his eyes and refused to take a picture with me. I was embarrassed, hurt, and angry. How could someone who got famous rapping about kung fu and Shaolin just summarily dismiss an Asian fan?
As an American History major at Columbia I took a senior seminar called “Race and Color in America.” My professor and all my classmates were black except for one white girl. The entire semester there wasn’t a single reading or discussion about Asian Americans. When I asked my professor why, he couldn’t give a clear answer. But it was clear to me. What I heard from him, and from all of these episodes in my life, was I don’t matter to them.
It was clear to me. What I heard from him, and from all of these episodes in my life, was I don’t matter to them.
I haven’t dwelt on these memories. But I realize now that they’ve been instrumental in shaping my view of the black community. I never consciously resented or thought less of my black friends as individuals. But the latent prejudice was there and would periodically bubble to the surface. Like how I overreacted when watching Chris Rock host the Oscars and condemn Hollywood for its lack of diversity—as Asians were represented only as the punchline of a joke. Or how I engaged in less-than-charitable debates online when the media denounced the dearth of black students at Stuyvesant, without mentioning the Asian students who composed the majority of the student body.
But when the onslaught of police brutality against the black community began to surface, I found myself unable to truly empathize. Of course it was tragic and obviously unjust, but there were a million other injustices I could think and pray about. What makes this issue more important than the others?
But what was really going on in my selfish heart was, Why should they matter to me if I don’t matter to them?
Seeing God’s Heart for the Oppressed
The events of this past week have forced me to reckon, once again, with my callousness. And the Lord has both tenderly and savagely unmasked me. He has revealed both enormous blinders of privilege that have prevented me from responding to injustice with humility and compassion, and just how entrenched and ugly my sin is.
This past Sunday during our family worship service, the passage just happened to be the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). As I was telling my 6-year-old the story, rather than telling him to be like the Good Samaritan and not like the priest or Levite, I asked him to imagine that he was beaten man. I said, “Imagine you’re lying on the ground bleeding and dying. A man who should help you ignores you and walks on by. Then another who should help you also ignores you. Finally, an enemy approaches. You expect him to pass by, but he doesn’t. He stops and saves you—just like Jesus did.”
And for a brief moment I imagined my little son beaten, bleeding, and dying with nothing I could do to save him. People who should’ve helped simply walking by as he lies there, crying for help. In that moment, as I pictured his frail body on the ground, God gave me a glimpse of his heart for victims of injustice. What did God feel when George Floyd was killed while those like Tou Thao, an Asian police officer on the scene who should’ve helped him, did nothing? Why should black lives matter to me? Not because I matter to them. Black lives matter because they profoundly matter to God.
Why should black lives matter to me? Not because I matter to them. Black lives matter because they profoundly matter to God.
As I thought of these things while the march proceeded, I began to weep tears of remorse for my sin, my racism, and my indifference. I vowed to no longer stay silent, passing by my black brothers and sisters. And then, the crowd began to chant the names of the victims. Ahmaud Arbery! Breonna Taylor! George Floyd! My tears changed and, for the first time, I wept for Ahmaud, Breonna, and George. I wept for their families. I wept for their community. Perhaps for the first time, I knew what it meant that Black Lives Matter.
Before we jump straight into activism, some of us need to take a moment to unearth and repent of the racism and sin in our own hearts. Can we engage in meaningful conversations with others, and confess to one another our own failures and lack of concern? This will help us better lament with, learn from, and stand alongside our black brothers and sisters.
And, finally, let us continue to place our hope in our Lord Jesus, who hates injustice and who will one day wipe away every tear, make all things new, and establish true and eternal shalom.